Friday, May 1, 2015


I am an omnivorous reader...and the month of April proves it: a Pulitzer-Prize winning play,  picture books, graphic novels, nonfiction, classics, contemporary fiction and YAL...but the most important book I read last month was also the most frustrating, and the one I still reflect on. It's one I will heartily recommend to my teacher friends who are willing to dig deep into their practice.

The Thinking Brain: An Evolutionary Trait at the Heart of Education, by Vanessa Rodriguez challenges our thinking about teaching and learning. Teaching is a social act -- learning may not be. Teaching by expert teachers is dynamic and messy and complicated. Attempts to 'teacher proof' curricula with scripts, and attempts to evaluate teachers solely on student test scores are not at all compatible with what teaching really, relationship-driven.

Think about it...we can learn by ourselves. Not everything we need to learn, but it is possible to learn alone. It is not possible to teach alone...teaching, is at heart, about relationships. It's social. You cannot teach without a connection to a learner.

A lot has been written about the learning brain, but this is the first book I've seen that concentrates on the teaching brain...and assures us that teaching is a skill that we can and should be improving through deliberate practice.

Many of us teachers know this and make certain we work hard to create and nurture a connection with our students, with their parents, and anyone who is significant to our students. This relationship is hard-wired into the teaching ignore its power is to risk negating the teaching-learning process.

What follows is my review from, enhanced with more quotes from the book.

"We don’t expect learners to be expert learners right away; we know that becoming a resourceful, self-regulated, persistent learner happens over time. Learners develop. The same is true of teachers."

At once fascinating, boring, heavy, entertaining, challenging, affirming. Both too deep for me and not deep enough for me.

But at the heart is the truth about teaching: it is a relationship. It only exists within the framework of a social interaction. It is a learned skill. Studies with children show everyone has the rudimentary skill, and that as we mature, so does our teaching ability.

Rodriguez went through the behaviorist theories which drive today's reform...where teaching is ramming facts into heads so students can pass tests. She makes the point that to truly improve learning and teaching, we must take the time to understand why and how we teach. And what the heck happens as we teach.

She discusses theories of cognition, emotion, the learner's brain, memory and mind. These all need to develop in order to become an expert teacher...either knowingly, or through practice.

Then there are the awarenesses...that 'withitness' we hear so much about. Rodriguez explains to my satisfaction what's going on in the brain of a 'withit' teacher without ever using that term...she also does not use the National Board term of 'accomplished teacher,' but I see connections there too.

"Expert teachers … recognize there are multiple systems in play all at once, and they have the ability to decode those that are directly and indirectly affecting the learner. Expert teachers think, behave, and change in response to the various needs of their students, the classroom environment, and their own personal contexts. 
Expert teachers recognize the variables that contribute to the learner’s system of understanding and then manage the patterns they create. They keep these patterns in mind in order to make key teaching decisions and in order to adjust their interactions with the learner in a way that will help the student learn more effectively. teachers recognize the learner as one system, themselves as another, and their interaction with the learner as a third system, which we’ll call the teacher-learner system.  
Expert teachers are able to do this at both micro and macro levels, constructing theories of the learning system for each individual student and for the class as a whole.
Teachers who are aware and motivated to fully develop as systems thinkers also understand the level to which their own personal context affects how they interact with individual students and the classroom culture as a whole."

She uses terms I will need to look up and study later...they make sense to her, but I didn't entirely catch on: Theory of Mind, Dynamic Skill Theory, system thinkers...

Anytime a teacher is teaching, he or she could be in control of several different 'awarenesses' -- to different degrees. Awareness of the learner (or learners), of the interaction, of the teacher him or herself, of the teaching practice, and of the context...All this is bubbling in the mind of that accomplished teacher as she scans the room using feedback kids knowingly and unknowingly give her, watching the success or lack of success of the interaction...does she need to adjust? of the teacher herself...does she feel successful? Is the lesson working? Does she have the skills to adjust and rework the lesson? What is she really doing and why? All those questions that become part of reflective practice. What about the context? The setting? The school? The support or lack of support? Her freedom to work from all those awarenesses.

As I read, I would stumble across perfect descriptions of that flow that can happen in a successful lesson, and the true power of what an accomplished teacher is capable of.

Is it juggling? Walking a tightrope without a net? Is it conducting an orchestra?

I will go over my quotes again and add them to this review.

But then...right in the middle of my own 'flow' of reading, she would hit passages with 'too many words' that all needed deep analysis...passages that made sense to her, but did not work for me.

This book is part of a study she did, interviewing teachers others had identified as 'expert'. The interview excerpts were strangely interspersed, and they did not work.

What did work was the idea of teaching as a social act, of the ability of a teacher to improve, of the theories we have of our own teaching, and the awarenesses that are tools for us to deepen our teaching within that social setting...of our obligation to use every tool to be the best teacher we can be.

Why is teaching hard, sometimes impossible?

 "Teaching is not a linear process of inputting knowledge into the learner. Teaching consists of at least two variables, the learner and the teacher, and each of these variables is in turn defined by a practically infinite number of variables."

More favorite quotes:

"To be blunt, our current models of teaching are outdated and unsophisticated. Their deterministic and rigid criteria stand in the way of fully integrating current research from the learning sciences and what we know of how the brain works."

"Just as we develop emotionally, socially, and intellectually over our life span, so too does our teaching ability; it grows and adapts each time we are placed in a new context."

"Unlike learning, teaching cannot happen independently."

"On a very basic level, we teach so we can belong..."

"learning is a skill that we’re all born with that develops over time."

"Learning is dynamic and changes over time."

"Redefining teaching as a natural human skill that develops over time, as we’ve begun to do, means it is both a trainable skill and an art form, making it similar to many other skilled professions."

"The depth and complexity of a teacher’s skills depend on the teacher’s own experience, effort, and interactions with specific contexts."

"...teaching never occurs without the dyad of teacher and learner. As the leader in this interaction, the teacher gathers information both from the learner and from herself and processes what is necessary for the interaction to be beneficial for the learner. This integration of a teacher’s own personal and professional contexts is often overlooked or absent in current practice and in contemporary educational reform efforts."


  1. After reading your review, it makes sense that the best teacher training program in the country is urban residencies where the future teacher works full time in a master teacher's classroom while taking classes back at the university in the late afternoons and in the summer.

    Compare that with 5 weeks of summer workshops and little or no hands on experience with real children in a real classroom with a veteran teacher and we have TFA.

    1. Inrerestingly enough, the only teacher prep programs she mentions is TFA. She describes the teaching they've been trained to do as 'spinal cord teaching.' Call-and-response, not reflective.

      I was disappointed, and I didn't know it until I read your comment, by the fact she doesn't ever talk about how some teachers become those 'experts' she describes...

      Since I'm an NBCT, and deeply involved in candidate support, I can see THAT process helping foster analytical and reflective teaching. I wish she had spoken more about HOW to get to that 'sweet spot.'